Sticker shock: What to do when the price is wrong?

Saturday Night Live once ran a parody ad for a label-maker that would discreetly print price stickers. As a fast-talking pitchman waxed rhapsodic, shoppers gleefully "repriced" such items as diamond jewelry and power tools, which cashiers then rang up for the price on the label.

"This diamond bracelet normally sells for $1,000!" the announcer boomed. "But now it can be yours– for only $3.99!"

I thought of that ad while researching this week's contretemps, because the dispute concerns whether a customer is entitled to pay the (lower) amount on a price sticker even when the seller can prove it's wrong– and not, in this case, because the customer pulled a switcheroo, but because the wrong price sticker was applied.

The question arose when UVA law student Marta Sanchez and a friend, who is also a law student, went to Studio Art on West Main Street in search of a leather portfolio. (Yes, Sanchez is the sexual-assault survivor who sued one of her professors for assault after he touched her shoulder in class to prove a tort point. The suit was settled in February.)

"I found one I liked," Sanchez emailed me, "that was priced at $79.95. However, there was a smaller one I liked more that was over $100.... I could find no difference between the two other than size. I did not want to pay more for less, so I took both to the cash register and pointed out the discrepancy."

Craig Burruss, long-time buyer for Studio Art, "did a price check on both items. He found that the larger [portfolio] had been mislabeled and told me he preferred to do the 'honest thing' by charging me the correct price, which was not on the label.

"I told him that was illegal, and he could not charge me more for an item than what was on the price label. He said, 'What law are you speaking of?'"

Sanchez's friend "proceeded to explain that according to consumer protection laws, vendors are bound to charge the price that is on the item," even if it's been mislabeled. However, Burruss pointed out that a customer could simply switch price tags, to which the women protested that "it was obvious we had done no such thing, and that he would never have known about the mistake in labeling had we not brought it to his attention."

My first response, when Sanchez contacted me, was that there might indeed be a law that compels sellers to honor whatever the price tag says. I was basing that on an experience at Sears in which I was allowed to buy an upholstered footstool for $29– because when I'd first seen it, the day before, that's what the sign had said.

When I went back, the price had been corrected upward by about $80. I protested, and one of the clerks said, "That's right– I saw that sign." The upshot was that I got a great deal on a footstool.

I now know, thanks to Marion Horsley, public relations coordinator for the state Office of Consumer Affairs, that Sears could have refused to let me have it for the lower price.

"It's an urban myth," Horsley said, that sellers have to honor whatever's on the price tag. But what about the law Sanchez's friend had cited? It's Chapter 17, Section 59.1 of the Virginia Code (better known as the Consumer Protection Act), which states, "The refusal by [a seller] to sell any goods as advertised or offered for sale at the price or upon the terms advertised or offered, shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this subdivision."

Horsley explained that that refers to bait-and-switch situations, when, for example, the seller has advertised a lower price or established a record of selling the item at that price, then suddenly announces a price hike. It was not meant to hold sellers liable for mispriced items– whether by customer shenanigans or when the mispricing was by employee error, as in this case. (In the case of merchandise that's electronically scanned, the price sticker rules, whether it's on the item or the shelf.)

I visited Studio Art and spoke with Burruss, who confirmed Sanchez's version of events. "A day doesn't go by," he told me, that a price tag isn't revealed as incorrect– but, he hastened to add, the correct price was just as likely to be in the customer's favor.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.